The beach makes my heart sing. The smell of the salt water, the burn of the hot sand getting hotter and hotter with every step as you dance across the sand to the closest shade, then the feeling of complete freedom as you dive under the water, salt water stinging your eyes.
In the last forty years of my life I have never gone more than three weeks without a visit to the beach, and I mistakenly thought China with its long eastern coastline would have plenty to choose from, but much of the coast is beach-less river delta where rivers widen dramatically to meet the sea over a broad flat tidal expanse of mud. Not ideal for swimming.
When I began to plan our trip I desperately wanted to find a beach, somewhere beautiful and not crowded. I asked around, I consulted maps and guidebooks, but other than the beaches of Qingdao (too crowded) and the beaches of Hainan Island (too far south, and inaccessible without a plane or boat) I drew a blank.
Wasting time one day last week I opened Google Earth and scrolled randomly up and down the east coast, just looking and hoping. Near the town of Lianyungang in Jiangsu province (a place I’d never heard of) was a small island connected to the mainland by what looked like a causeway. As I zoomed in I felt building excitement – the island had two perfect crescents of sand separated by lush green hills, and other than a small resort development at one end appeared largely uninhabited. Even more promisingly I could see rows of beach umbrellas lining the smaller beach. Yes!
Lian Island turned out to be even better in reality – a laidback seaside world. The island’s entry road is lined with little shops selling retro shell souvenirs line and rows of fresh seafood restaurants, fronted by outdoor tanks of live fish, shrimp, molluscs and crayfish just waiting for customers to come along and choose their own catch of the day. Bypass these if you’re not hungry and drive past the fishing harbour to the island’s northern side where an exquisite small cove called Suma Wan awaits, the lush green jungle tangled with vines and flowers tumbling down the hills to the blue sea. Peacocks wander in and out of the gardens, occasionally showing magnificent plumage and calling their distinctive call through the jungle.
Bookending the beach are two rocky promontories topped with traditional Chinese pavilions. I often forgot where I was as I swam out to deep water, unti I looked up and saw the gracefully upturned eaves in the distance.
The beach itself is perfect – a sheltered cove with fine, shell-strewn sand and lines of thatched beach umbrellas. The only major oversight as far as I can see is the distinct lack of a cocktail bar, but other than that you can keep yourself busy with water bicycling, tumbling around on the water in an inflatable hamster wheel, jetski touring, or just floating around with a fluorescent life preserver around your middle.
What strikes me is that swimming is not a skill possessed by most Chinese visitors to the beach, hardly surprising given China’s massive internal land mass, far from oceans. Mao though, famously swam every day when able in rivers, the ocean, or lakes.
The unfamiliarity with swimming becomes clear from people’s dress – most are wearing bathers bought from the small shop on the beach, and a quite a few are swimming either fully clothed or in their underwear. Adults and children alikeare protected from the waist deep dead calm water by wearing life preservers or clinging to the floating guide ropes in the water.
The few who can swim do so ostentatiously, dressed in full and proper Olympic swimming kit – short, close-fitting trunks, bathing cap, goggles and nose clip. They go out just deep enough for everyone to see they know what’s what and with great sense of purpose swim a few strokes in no particular direction, then emerge striding from the water.
It’s a lovely relaxing day, everyone is enjoying themselves in the sun….and then the brides and grooms arrive, all fifty-eight of them, over the next few hours.
Beach Wedding Photography, Chinese Style
The clutch of brides, more beatiful than the white peacocks roaming the beachside gardens, spill out of a minivan in full wedding regalia, long white dresses sweeping the ground, hair arranged in sleek black chignons topped with dramatic headpieces crusted with flowers and pearls, and ears heavy with long pearl and diamante drops.
Their eyes, heavily rimmed with kohl, turn towards us oddly dressed foreigners in our swimming costumes and towels as if to question the suitability of our attire for attending the beach, and then with one long sweep they scoop up the trailing trains of their dresses over their arms, revealing scuffed plastic Crocs and cutoff denim shorts. The illusion dissolves immediately.
We follow them down the wooden stairs, all six bridal couples accompanied by a brace of photographers, assistants, make-up artists and gophers carrying assorted props – bags of fake floral bouquets, rainbow-coloured windmills, a violin in a case, a red and white life buoy, and six reflector screens covered in foil.
The Chinese wedding photography industry is a mysterious country of its own, with its own government and bylaws, its own ethnic factions, and its own currency and festivals. Couples enter into this land through the portal of glittering shops with names like Paris and LoveWedding, where they sit for days with wedding consultants poring over style books to decide on the style of wedding they would like, the only irony being there is no wedding and they’re not actually married.
The actual wedding, compared to the splendor of the wedding photography, will be a drab affair months later involving five hundred guests in a fancy Chinese restaurant surrounded by life-size images of the couple as they appeared in their wedding dream, as realized by those magician photographers on a memorable day in the distant past.
Like all magicians, there is a great deal of smoke and mirrors involved in the transformation of a pair of short-sighted graphic designers from Lianyungang into a romantic beachside vision of true love. Here’s how it’s done.
The wedding dresses are made of machine-washable synthetic, one size fits all, and are fastened with bulldog cips at the back if you’re on the small side, or an infinitely expandable corsetry lacing if you’re not. The grooms, in white suits with ruffled shirts and enormous collars chosen to match the wedding dress, look stiff and uncomfortable as they’re directed into position. But the suits are completely wrinkle-free.
The make-up, lavishly applied to both bride and groom, is made from heat, sun and sand-resistant polymers that probably last for days afterwards on your skin.
Props are chosen, poses are positioned, and then the couple strip down to their underwear right there on the beach and change into Bridal Ensemble Number Two, usually a brightly coloured version of Bridal Ensemble Number One. And the whole scene is repeated in blazing technicolour polyester.
After watching this magic for two whole days and more than forty couples on Suma Wan’s tiny and now very crowded beach I have realised there are five standard poses in any Magic Beach Wedding photography set:
1. The Standard – bride and groom side by side at the shore line, dress draped artfully on the sand. Variations include props placed artfully on the draped dress, such as dried starfish or the jaunty red and white life preserver.
2. The Distance Shot – often the groom stands behind the bride, facing away but looking back wistfully at her over his shoulder
3. The Happy-Go-Lucky shot – this involves hands in the air, or kicking water, or jumping simultaneoulsy. It doesn’t usually involve a group of swimmers and four other couples in various stages of dress/undress, as shown here.
4. The Groom Solo Shot – embracing married life, as it were.
5. The Novelty Shot. This involves the couple bringing something of their own personalities to the scene – crazy glasses, funny hats, or in this case a pair of bunny hand puppets. I know, I know – you wish you’d thought of this for your wedding photos too.
So there you have it, Chinese wedding photography for the uninitiated. Dusk falls, golden hour is over and the couples traipse in a straggling column back up the steps. The dresses and suits have been stuffed tightly into bags for washing.
At last, the beach is empty and the only sign of the photographic love fest that has just taken place is a lone pair of false eyelashes, marooned on the sand.
Suma Bay Eco Park
suma gang shengtai yuan
Admission: Adults 50 yuan, Children 25 yuan, Vehicles 15 yuan
Open daily 9am-6pm
Beachside overnight cabins available for rent
Campsite Notes: Lian Dao
We camped in the small secluded carpark just west of the Suma Bay Eco Park ticket office and entrance – the park closes at 6pm so the nearby carpark is empty at night. Between 7pm and 8.30am next day there were no other cars.
We considered overstaying closing time within the park itself but all the suitable parking sites have CCTV cameras so it seemed likely we would be moved on by the staff as they left for the day.
Co-ordinates: Lat 34.757590° Long 119.492593°
Public Facilities: nil
Quietness: Crickets and breezes
Nearest water/groceries: Liandao village, at the entry road to the island (limited supplies)